Women help each other through online breastfeeding support groups as support dwindles amid pandemic

The growth of breastfeeding groups on social media is seeing “women helping women” breastfeed their babies longer in the face of limited access to in-person support during the pandemic.

For Ipswich mother-of-two Julia Collingwood, finding an online community to help her through the hardships she’s faced has been a game-changer.

“I had a village, I had a group of women who supported me in online support groups that I could go to for every little problem and I felt like even though it was difficult, I I could get away with it,” she said.

Ms Collingwood said it came as a shock when she struggled to breastfeed her first child, which caused her to stop much sooner than she wanted.

“Not being able to feed myself the way I wanted to at first was really disheartening, and I would describe it as a kind of heartache to be honest, of something being taken away from me because I didn’t have the support,” she said.

A UK studyreleased last month, highlighted the value of well-moderated social media groups in helping women breastfeed.

Not all women can breastfeed, but for those who can and want support, there are now several Australian Facebook groups and they have amassed tens of thousands of members.

Julia Collingwood with her husband Steven Collingwood and their two boys Alex (left) and Noah (right). (Provided)

Ms Collingwood said the online support helped her breastfeed her second son who has food allergies, requiring him to cut out food groups from his own diet. She said that for her, breastfeeding was “the greatest parenting tool” she had.

“It’s hard work, but it’s also a sense of accomplishment and it’s changed the way I look at it,” Ms Collingwood said.

“It actually forces me to slow down, I sit down and feed my baby and I have to slow down and it gives me this sense of rest and reflection and not everything is always in motion.”

Enhanced figures “do not show the full picture”

Australia’s National Breastfeeding Strategy aims to promote breastfeeding through measures such as increasing the number of breastfeeding-friendly environments and strengthening regulations regarding the marketing and distribution of infant formula.

The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, then continued breastfeeding alongside safe complementary foods for up to two years and beyond.

The WHO is working to increase global rates of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months to at least 50% by 2025, a target also endorsed by Australian health authorities.

National Health Survey data show that 35% of babies in the survey were exclusively breastfed up to six months.

Nearly three-quarters (73.8%) of the babies included in the survey were still receiving breast milk at six months and just over half (51.1%) at 12 months, compared to 66% and 41% respectively in the 2017-2018 national survey. Investigation.

However, breastfeeding researcher at La Trobe University, Professor Lisa Amir, said this might not paint the full picture, as the study was conducted online and had a low response rate.

Two women dressed in white breastfeed their babies
Julia Collingwood says she was able to seek help online to help her breastfeed her second son. (Supplied: Australian Breastfeeding Project)

“It’s likely to be an overrepresentation of high-income families, and we know from previous National Health Surveys that there’s a pretty big gap between breastfeeding rates in families low and high income,” Prof Amir said.

“People who have filled it out are probably not a representative sample, they will be the most advantaged people, who have the time to fill it out, who are interested in research.”

She said many women stopped breastfeeding earlier than planned due to a lack of support.

“I think it’s well recognized in the community that breastfeeding is the best way to feed infants and so that’s what mothers intend to do, but what we’re seeing is that many women quit sooner than they expect, often because they are having difficulty and they don’t. I don’t know what to do,” Prof Amir said.

Professor Amir said she was aware that for some, all options have been exhausted and breastfeeding was simply not an option.

“As a public health advocate, I speak about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, but as a clinician, I recognize that not all mothers and babies are able to ‘achieve this goal,’ said Professor Amir.

“For example, some women who have significant postpartum hemorrhage may have difficulty producing full milk supply and we need access to safe infant formula for these situations.”

Professor Amir said it was important that support services were available for women who wanted to access them and it was unfortunate that many had been shut down during the pandemic.

“It’s not enough because new mothers and babies are a vulnerable population and we need to support them,” she said.

The photo that sparked a movement

The Australian Breastfeeding Project, a movement to empower women to breastfeed in public, was started by Victorian photographer Sarah Murnane who captured an image of her friends on Breamlea Beach in Victoria in 2015.

A group of 19 women on a beach breastfeeding their babies
The photo that sparked the start of the Australian Breastfeeding Project.(Provided: Sarah Murnane)

“I had a group of mothers, we all had similar values ​​and so when I was sick, or at the time I was also a birth photographer so when I had to go to work at a moment’s notice, they would then step in and breastfeed my daughter to be happy and nurtured, so it’s worked out wonderfully,” she said.

“I really wanted to capture the brotherhood and the village that I find really important, so I took this picture on a beach… which went viral, and I had so many women asking if I could take pictures of it. ‘they’re doing the exact same thing.”

This photo became the catalyst for the project, an ongoing photographic series that aims to “raise awareness of the beauty of breastfeeding, gain acceptance that prolonged breastfeeding has several health benefits, and take action to eradicate the stigma associated with breastfeeding in public”.

It also led to a Facebook support group that now has over 50,000 members.

“I couldn’t have done it without my incredible administrative team in the group, I have midwives, lactation consultants, breastfeeding counselors and more, we have such an incredible team,” said Ms. Murnan said.

“It’s pretty amazing to feel you are making a difference, I’ve seen so many people struggle including myself, I was one of those who struggled especially with my first and from Seeing people say, ‘I fed myself for two, three years or even more because of the project’, it’s a pretty incredible feeling.”

Julia Collingwood in hospital
Julia Collingwood is now administrator of the Australian Breastfeeding Project. (Provided: Julia Collingwood)

Ms Murnane said it was important to provide correct information about breastfeeding, including how supply and demand worked.

“I really think it takes a village to breastfeed and unfortunately what I often see is that the generational information that would normally have been passed down has been lost and we really strive to be the support that other women don’t have now in their day-to-day lives,” she said.

Ms Collingwood is now part of the administrative team that runs the Australian Breastfeeding Project’s support and information group on Facebook.

“Being able to help other women feed their babies, the way I wish I could feed my first, has been extremely rewarding,” she said.

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